Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Great Divide

Last week I wrote about New Orleans and the fact that most of those areas, which were most devastatingly hit by Katrina, had been home to that city's poorest residents. They have absolutely nothing to return to, and in some eyes they need NOT ever return. Many feel no desire to return.

I was taken to task, for rightly saying, this was a race issue. I had no need to try and make it anything but what it truly is, a racial divide which some choose to ignore or pray fervently will disappear. Not since the days immediately following the Civil War have there been so many displaced persons, and not since that time has it been so glaringly obvious that for all the reconstruction plans, the fighting for Civil Rights, has so little really been done or accomplished.

We, as a nation have deliberately turned a blind eye to those among us who are the poor. It is the ultimate negative about the American Dream. It is the underbelly of our society that we try not to see. If you are white and poor then there is much tsk tsking done and excuses made. But if you are black and poor well then you are somehow less of a human being or a citizen. Never mind that poverty, across the board has risen, by 12 per cent, under the Bush administration, even those who were employed made barely enough to squeak by and now even their jobs have been destroyed, not by some foreign terrorist but by a storm of such magnitude that we were forced to look squarely at this poverty and suffering.

A man, who day after day went out on an oyster boat to gather the harvest of much sought after Gulf oysters, made, on a good day, perhaps a hundred dollars, other than that he was paid $2.00 a sack, his "pay" for swabbing down the boat. His monthly income was approximately $2,000. This was just enough to allow him, his wife and 3 children to survive in a trailer home but hardly enough to buy flood insurance. Not only is everything he worked for gone, his source of income has vanished as well. No more boat, no more oyster beds. In his early 40's, he is faced with starting over, but with what? No basic education, no skills, no savings and certainly nothing to return to. Not a man on the "dole" but a working American, trying to support his family.

He is not alone, this Gulf Oyster fisherman, many others in this shelter also made a living the same way. Barely able to scrape by, trying desperately to provide for a family in a dead end occupation with no hope of advancement or monetary improvement. And, despite what my critic would say, most are poor, uneducated and African American. This is a fact of life, not something that needs to HAVE a racial spin put on it. Surely this is not to say that there are not whites suffering for the same lack of education, employment or poverty, but when you take a city whose population was 68% black, I am sure you can do the math.

Charles Nelson of the US Census Bureau in Washington was presenting the latest report, on income and poverty in this country, at the same time the levees, in New Orleans, were being breached by Katrina. This report served to show devastation without the aid of outside natural forces. Poverty has been growing steadily in the last 4 years by 1.1 million people, with now a full 37 million of us living in poverty. Under the Clinton administration the official number of poor had steadily decreased. Under the Bush administration it has grown 12 per cent. So much for Compassionate Conservatism.

The US Census Data Report, which usually gets no press, and is largely ignored, has forced us to take a horrifying look at how we, as a nation, have regarded our poor. And it is not just in the south but in cities like Detroit and even Washington, DC, where the infant mortality rate is higher than Cuba's, and a full one third of the population live below the poverty line. Still, it is in the South that the most worrisome numbers prevail. Both Mississippi and Louisiana are two of this nation's poorest states, and the two most heavily damaged by Katrina, and in New Orleans, where two thirds of the population
were African American, twenty three percent of her residents lived hand to mouth. Is it any wonder then that what unfolded, in front of our eyes, was a lawlessness, and anarchy if you will? New Orleans, after Katrina's departure was referred to by Yale Professor Jim Sleeper, as "Baghdad on the Mississippi" and erstwhile New York Times editorialist, Frank Rich, likened it to the Titanic where the first class passengers were the only ones guaranteed safe passage off the sinking vessel, while below decks it was every man for himself.

And now we have the aftermath. People who had nothing to begin with having to find a way to start rebuilding their lives. Some will move to other states, perhaps stay in the one to which they were evacuated. Mayor Nagin will continue to pontificate about not wanting those people back into his city. The wealthiest residents will get to have a meeting, with Mayor Nagin, to talk about rebuilding New Orleans and changing the structure of the city, demographically, geographically and even perhaps politically, while helicopters deposit security forces in Audubon Park in order to protect their properties. Ahhh...the TRUE meaning of Homeland Security!
Susan B. Goodwin